Awards season is upon us. The last few months have given us plenty of artsy, Oscar-bait films, as well as blockbuster animated features (Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet) that are sure to be recognized by the Academy in a couple months. But today I want to draw attention to a unique subset of animated films that are doing everything they can to get some notice from the mainstream film community: VR animation shorts.
VR animation is computer animation done in a virtual reality space. Characters, set pieces, props, and everything else you might need are created the same way they would be in a Disney or DreamWorks movie, but instead of storyboarding the film out in the traditional way, a 360-degree virtual camera gets plopped down right in the middle of the action.
The viewer can then look any which way they choose and watch the story unfold around them. And maybe go back and watch again and again from other viewpoints. It’s a really unique medium that has created some truly beautiful films, such as Penrose Studios’ Allumette, Patrick Osborne’s Pearl, and the new short Age of Sail from Oscar-winning director John Kahrs (Disney’s Paperman).
VR animation’s biggest problem in today’s market is exposure. Virtual reality is expensive tech, and animation already gets a pretty short stick when it comes to awards. So the method creators have taken is to create a separate release, a flattened, for-the-screen animated film that just follows the plot of the original using traditional cinema techniques.
Presumably, submitting these alternate versions for awards consideration will lead to major recognition followed by publicity for the original creation. This is what Pearl did last year, and it received an Oscar nomination (but placed last in our ranking of the nominees), and now Age of Sail is attempting a similar achievement this year.
This concession to the mainstream robs these pieces of what makes them original, unique, and special. Let’s take an in-depth look at both versions of Pearl (both are available for free online) to break down this phenomenon.
The most immediate and pressing issue I have with the theatrical version of Pearl is the forced perspective. The narrative of Pearl centers around the main characters’ car, and part of the original VR version’s appeal is that you, the viewer, are right there in the passenger seat with them. Everything around you is telling the story, and it’s your job to make of that what you will. Several shots in the theatrical version undermine that purpose by taking away our participation.
And at about the 30-second mark, we’re treated to a short montage of several shots focused forward on the highway. This is yet another trait of classical cinema that Pearl is forced to adopt for the format, and it quite literally undercuts the atmospheric buildup of the original. In the VR version, the car’s surroundings provide context to the actions of the characters all in one neatly packaged scene. It’s all about putting you, the viewer, into the scene and immersing you. But cutting pushes the scenery to the side and draws focus to the characters.
Forced-camera framing and montage-style cutting ultimately lead to one question: why constrain ourselves to the inside of the car? Surely this film, if meant to stand on its own, could benefit from some extra scenes, more dialogue, and backstory? But that confinement is actually the point of the VR film. What kind of story can be told focusing exclusively on setting and location, and how can we make that as immersive and meaningful as possible?
Age of Sail has a similar location constraint, as it’s set inside a boat on the open water in the year 1900. Watch the theatrical version below that’s being submitted for Oscar consideration and you’re sure to realize how much you’re missing (those of you with VR capability can find the original version on all the usual apps).
Conversion for the sake of awards weakens the experimental foundation upon which the very concepts of VR animation are built. The whole purpose of this genre is to push the boundaries of cinema. I think it’s a mistake to convert VR animated films to 2D versions for awards. The flat releases don’t have the spark of the original.
I encourage everyone to seek out VR animation in its original form. It’s beautiful work by underappreciated artists and deserves to be viewed and experienced on its own terms.